Passing Through BodhGaya

by Shana Maria Verghis, The Pioneer (India), Dec 20, 2004

Gaya, India -- A look of disgust passes over Nahalika Tilakaratna's face as she settles into a lunch of rice and mixed vegetables. We are spending the night at a Sri Lankan monastery in Bodhgaya, Bihar. Holiest of Buddhist religious sites. The chief abbot is our host. We are getting along fine, him and I.

Questions are asked about monastery meals. They don't starve here, we'll tell you this much. The discussion unmindfully intrudes on Nahalika's meditative food mood. "You don't understand the importance of silence while having a meal, do you?" she asks, cold as a glass of iced water. You squiggle awkwardly into quiet mode like a punctuation mark.

Nahalika is my travelling companion. She is a Sri Lankan artist, Buddhist by practice. Nahalika is here to hold a show at Arpana Caur's Academy. A pilgrimage to Bodhgaya was also on her tour card. The reason for the latter was unusual. Nahalika paints images based on Buddhist scriptures. She was facing a crisis of sorts. A status quo in her life and career. She was 45. A school teacher by profession, tending towards moroseness. A priest suggested she couldn't move things on because she had cut a tree in her last life.
To improve her karmic quotient she was advised to plant another. Easy solution, don't you think? All she had to do was pick sapling and seeds at Mahabodhi temple, next door, centre of an exquisite temple complex.
Everyone has a place
The site supposedly post-dates Buddha's passing away. Construction of temples probably started around the seventh century we learnt. Buddhism thrived in Bodhgaya even under the Mughals. After the 16th century it declined in importance when Hindu priests took over. It took 19th century Brit archaeologists to restore Bodhgaya to its rightful place as a spiritual centre. Buddhists abroad contributed to its restoration. Now all Buddhist nations like Japan, Thailand, Tibet, Burma and Bhutan are represented through temples, monasteries, and shrines.
Behind the facade of piety a running rift between the Hindus and Buddhists continues. Depending on who you are talking to, each will assert the other built over an existing Buddhist or Hindu shrine. Adding to this, the Buddha is regarded as an incarnation of Vishnu and Hindus hold a majority in Mahabodhi temple's committee. It's an uneasy situation to say the least.
Sprinkle unholy water
If you're going to Bodhgaya, it helps to have purpose. Even if it's only to buy beads and Dalai Lama T-shirts. Purpose is a useful state of mind.
It also helps to have somewhere to stay in advance, like a monastery. Accommodation is expensive. So are store goods. The evening of our arrival we had to intervene as a fuming monk of Chinese-Japanese extraction was being fleeced by a grocer who jacked the price on a bottle of Bisleri.

Some straight talk
Monks to the left of you, monks to the right. Mongoloid looking ones. Caucasian ones. Handsome enough to keep a woman mind occupied by non-sacred thoughts. At the back of them, words of an ex-boyfriend flicker, "Monks are abnormal. They have to be gay."

Tell this to a monk and the best of them will laugh right back at you. Sota Tamagichi is one of them. He belongs to a Vietnamese order. Tamagichi is roly-poly, moon-faced and jolly when we meet at the monastery. "Let's talk near the Bodhi Tree," he tells us ladies. Located to the back of the temple, this isn't the bodhi tree Buddha sat beneath. Legend says Ashoka destroyed the original before conversion. His daughter Sanghamitta took a sapling to Sri Lanka. Later a shoot from the tree which grew in Anandapura was planted in Bodhgaya.
Weight loss therapy
Tamagichi has placed a wooden platform beneath another bodhi tree behind the temple. Bhutanese monks are holding a solemn ceremony beside the sacred Bodhi Tree in the afternoon. Chanting, horn blowing, clashing cymbals. It is a grave moment, banishing mischievous thoughts to the wind which blows the multi-coloured prayer flags tied around the holy tree.
Tamagichi's wooden platform and he have spent three months at Bodhgaya already. His master instructed him to return to Germany after completing 10,000 prostrations. He is through with 5,000. We talk of life surrounded by graves of the dead. Tamagichi's eyes crinkle. He smiles a lot. What were the prostrations for we wonder. Replies, "I didn't ask. Think it's because I was getting too fat!"
We meet by coincidence months later in Delhi. The day Dalai Lama holds a meeting at Buddha Jayanthi Park. Tamagichi seems graver and several pounds lighter.
Friendly meetings
That evening in Bodhgaya, crowds around Mahabodhi have grown in number. It's a wonderful assembly of people from around the world. They are here from Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, Germany, Switzerland. Groups of men and women offer prayers led by a head. Monks join in. Each worships in a different tongue. Each mouths a prayer. No one notices the overlap of languages. It is a moving, breathtaking few minutes.
We sit in silence before the statue of Buddha in Mahabodhi temple. It has sparkling eyes. Nahalika sprawls her legs. It's a comfortable posture, though not very respectful. Monks sweeping the cool temple interiors pay her no attention. For a non-Buddhist it's a liberating feeling. To hell with appearance. Buddha was to be reincarnated as Maitreya, the friend anyways. Not someone you forced yourself to be polite with. You sprawl too, then a Hindu priest taps a stick by your feet and it's back to being unnaturally well behaved.